Go Time for Lex Launch Winners
Last spring, four Lexington entrepreneurs walked away with $60,000 worth of prize money from the state after competing in a Shark Tank-style pitch competition to launch a new or existing business. The catch: They had to be open and ready for business this fall, or pay the money back. Shen Valley caught with the four winners (and their partners) on the cusp of their grand openings.
Erik Jones & Jenefer Davies
“In Greek, Heliotrope means ‘turn to the sun.’ We’re following the sun in the sense that we’re brewing with what’s in season.”
Over the summer, husband and wife Erik Jones and Jenefer Davies painstakingly scraped cement from the walls of a former real estate office on Main Street to expose the lovely, distressed brick underneath.
It’s not a fun job but somebody had to do it.
“Our contractor has given us permission to do this ourselves in order to save a bit of money,” says Erik.
The couple was in the midst of a gut renovation of a space that doubled in size after they tore down the wall of an old bike shop next door to create one large cavernous room. It will house Heliotrope, their craft brewery and pizza restaurant.
Erik and Jenefer’s business concept garnered the most money—$20,000—at the Launch Lex pitch competition last April.
The public pitch competition was the culmination of an 8-week long business-training program created by Main Street Lexington with assistance from a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, along with matching funds from the City of Lexington’s Industrial Development Authority. Eight finalists, backed up by comprehensive business plans completed in the workshop, had three minutes to convince six judges and 250 members of the public that their business concept was worthy of a slice of the pie. Or pizza pie, in Erik and Jenefer’s case.
How did Erik and Jenefer convince the judges?
First, says Erik, an Oregon-native and Washington and Lee alum, was the scope of their project.
Heliotrope will make farmhouse style ales and lagers on site and will be the only brewery within the city limits to do so (Devils Backbone and Great Valley Farm Brewery are located in Rockbridge County).
Their operation is expected to bring eight new jobs—brewers, chefs, a bar staff—to the downtown, which was more than some of the other competitors.
Brewing beer commercially requires a lot of power not typical for a downtown shop. The bulk of their winnings went toward bringing in three-phase power, which is used to power large motors and other heavy loads efficiently, resulting in less wear and tear on equipment and lower energy bills. Heliotrope will be essentially a manufacturing facility downtown.
“Part of the Launch Lex initiative is to help Main Street businesses,” says Jenefer, an associate professor of dance and theater at W&L and director of its dance program. “So if for whatever reason we move out—though we plan to be here forever—three-phase power will always be here.”
Erik, who’s been home-brewing for two decades, is the brew master. He honed his craft at the American Brewers Guild in Vermont before apprenticing for a stint at Deschutes in Oregon.
The plan is to stick to small batch beers made from seasonal ingredients that can be sourced locally, including the malt. Even the yeast is local.
“We have an indigenous yeast culture that’s grown up from stuff we’ve captured in the air here,” he says.
Their restaurant philosophy is captured by the brewery’s name. “In Greek, Heliotrope means ‘turn to the sun,’” says Erik. “We’re following the sun in the sense that we’re brewing with what’s in season.”
“This allows us to be nimble,” says Jenefer. “So if peaches come in next week, we can use them right away. The beer flavors and the pizza flavors will change all the time.” Jenefer’s long background in art administration means she’ll run the front of the house or, as she says, “all the things that aren’t brewing,” human resources, staff, budgeting.
The look they’re going for is “Scandinavian farmhouse:” minimal, airy with distressed details like the exposed brick or tabletops made from old barn doors topped with tempered glass. The vibe will be family friendly centered around conversation—no banks of monitors blaring ESPN or CNN here.
Because they’re brewing with local, high-end ingredients, the beer will be a little more expensive. Pours will be six or twelve ounces.
The hope is that Heliotrope will serve as a hub, bringing in new vitality and foot traffic to the typically quieter south end of Main Street where, not incidentally, four other Launch Lex participants —Make It Sew, Just Games Lexington, fLex Fitness and Red Newt Bikes—have set up shop. Five start-ups clustered so close together should inject new energy into that end of town.
Launch Lex winners were supposed to open by September 30 but Heliotrope was granted an extension because of the federal licensing and local permitting timelines involved with making alcohol commercially.
“One thing that makes the government pay attention is fire and alcohol,” says Erik. “We have both.”
With beer and flame in mind, the couple aims to open the first quarter of 2019.
JESS & COLIN REID
Lex Running Shop
“Being connected to a local running shop is being connected to a community of people. That’s why it’s so important this shop exudes a feeling of that idea—this is not just a place to get your gear and leave. You come in, you chat about the race, you have a cup of coffee. It’s an experience.”
Jess Reid wouldn’t call herself an elite runner. But she is deeply passionate about the sport, logging in some 35 miles per week in and around her home in Lexington. “I could talk about running all day,” she says.
Her husband Colin, a professor of accounting at W&L, cracks just over 20 miles a week.
The couple had always talked about opening up their own running shop. She had the passion, he was ninja with spreadsheets. And there was nowhere in Lexington to go buy a proper pair of running shoes despite the town’s sizable running community.
A friend emailed the couple a link to the 8-week business-training program presented by Main Street Lexington (with lots of assistance from the Staunton Creative Community Fund). Jess applied and was accepted. It’s where she and 23 other students learned more about marketing, finance, legal structure and cash flow. Having to write a detailed business plan was the nudge Jess needed to cement her vision.
“It really helped me think through the process of starting a business,” she says.
Her 21-page plan was one of eight deemed strong enough to earn her a slot at the Launch Lex pitch competition where she successfully sold the judges on the community aspect of her concept—how her store would serve as a hub for runners and other active people in the area, as well as sell shoes, running and athleisure apparel. The judges awarded her $15,000.
Ever since, it’s been an exhilarating, sometimes steep learning curve for Jess and Colin.
First, they signed the lease on a primo storefront on Main Street. It’s where they spent a lot of time thinking about the look and feel of the space.
“Lexington has such a distinctive sense of place,” says Jess. “We wanted that vibe to come through in the small details of the shop.”
Think rustic minimal, not Foot Locker: Barn wood paneling, industrial fixtures, a tight selection of sturdy shoes and chic apparel tested and approved by Jess.
Business decisions are made not by hunches or feelings, but analytics (this is where having an accountant as co-owner comes in very handy). “It’s all very data driven,” says Colin. Their accounting software is cloud based so the couple can access it off-site from their phones.
One early hurdle they faced was simply setting up accounts with vendors. “Maybe I was naïve in thinking that I could just call up the shoe vendors and they’d say, great! Wonderful! Sign the paperwork!” says Jess.
That’s not what happened. Instead, they had to endure a gauntlet of trying to prove their retail bona fides (which didn’t really exist yet) to skeptical sales reps.
“A lot of them said, ‘Oh, give us a call when you’re up and running and we’ll come by the shop,’” says Colin. “We’re like, we can’t be up and running without shoes. I was super nervous about that.”
But the couple wouldn’t take no for an answer. They couldn’t take no for an answer. They had to be open by end of September or return the $15,000. They kept pushing and pushing until two of the bigger labels, New Balance and Saucony, signed on.
“That gave us huge credibility with the smaller labels,” says Colin.
The other big hurdle was the looming death star of Amazon. How does a small town brick and mortar compete with the online behemoth?
Jess is sanguine about it. “I’ve already accepted there will be people who will come in, try on shoes, go home and buy them online. That’s the reality. But being connected to a local running shop is being connected to a community of people. That’s why it’s so important this shop exudes a feeling of that idea—this is not just a place to get your gear and leave. You come in, you chat about the race, you have a cup of coffee. It’s an experience. That is something Amazon will never be able to sell.”
So far, her instincts have proved correct. Since opening, the shop has been drawing a steady flow of runners, active people, tourists and college students. The weekly early morning group run that leaves from the shop have been successful. And their after work 3-mile pub runs have been a hit (funny how the prospect of beer will do that). Plans for more group runs and fitness opportunities are underway. No online retailer can compete with that.
But Jess’ favorite part of launching a new business? “Getting to work so closely with Colin,” she says as her husband beams. “We’ve had to make so many decisions which, when you’re married, can go really bad … but it’s been so fun. It’s been so fun to see how excited he gets about the stuff that tends to make me stressed and crazy but he comes alive tackling those tasks.”
A successful launch and a lovely marriage. Insert collective “awww!” here.
& Paige Gance
Just Games Lexington
“We’re really happy to have opened with a group that we know and like. We all started businesses together at the same time. It’s been really fun to bounce ideas off and support each other.”
To prepare for the opening of their new game shop Just Games Lexington, married couple Zander Tallman and Paige Gance used some of their Launch Lex winnings to fly to Indianapolis.
It’s where they attended Gen Con, the largest game convention in North America that has arguably the highest frequency of nerdgasms under one roof in the Northern Hemisphere. The two life-long gamers, who met while undergrads at W&L, were there to scout new products—board games, trading card games, role-playing games—with which to stock their fledgling store.
Among their faves? “The Quacks of Quedlinburg,” an award winning German board game in which quack doctors compete to see who can come up with the best hocus-pocus potion that claims to cure everything from love sickness to smelly feet. It’s supposed to be available state-side any day now.
It’s not the kind of product one will find at a box store and that’s precisely the point. Just Games doesn’t stock stand-bys (other than themed versions such as Game of Thrones Risk). They figure people can buy Monopoly and Candy Land anywhere. Just Games sells roughly 300 games of varying complexities that kids through adults might not already know about (Candy Land) and/or be weary of (Candy Land). Some game publishers, in fact, only sell through brick and mortar game shops.
“You want a fun, easy game like Codenames that can be over in 30 minutes?” asks Paige, who, when she’s not gaming is finishing her dissertation for a Ph.D. in agriculture and resource economics from the University of Maryland. “Great. We have that. We also have more complex four-hour campaigns like Through the Ages.”
She adds: “Our market is anyone who has a nerd inside them.”
One skill successful game shop owners have to possess is the ability to succinctly and clearly explain the objective of a game before play begins. “I get bothered when someone tries to demo a game by explaining all the rules but doesn’t tell me how to win,” says Paige. “That’s the point, right? How do I win? Start there.” Objective first, then rules.
Trading card games like Magic the Gathering and Pokemon are the bread and butter of their business.
“Those are the biggest money makers because you have to have certain cards in your deck to be competitive,” says Zander. He has a bachelor and a master’s degree in accounting. “They’re always updating what you need because they’re always releasing new cards.” New trading cards range from 10 cents to $25 per card. Zander and Paige have cards in their personal Magic collections worth hundreds of dollars each.
“Every local game store that wants to make money has to have a Friday night Magic event,” says Zander. That’s when Magic fanatics across the globe gather at their local game shop to play. Sessions can last hours.
Hosting such events is a key prong of their business model.
“It’s a way to create loyalty to the store and have people enjoy themselves with others instead of being on their devices,” says Paige. “And if they buy something while they’re here, great.”
It doesn’t cost anything to attend most events but some have a charge because players can win prizes. Players are in the store for two to three hours. (Selling snacks and drinks is a stealth revenue driver for game shops.)
Zander and Paige think the interactive aspect of a game shop is what persuaded the Launch Lex judges to award them the grant money.
Their location facilitates gatherings. Just Games Lexington is housed in what’s been dubbed The Hub, a 4,400 square foot space that accommodates two other new businesses, fLexFitness and Red Newt Bikes (also participants of the Launch Lex pitch competition). Hosted gaming events happen in the evenings after the other businesses have closed so players, whether dressed in street clothes or druid garb, can spread out into the open hallway.
Several nights a week, in fact, people come by to play Magic the Gathering, free board game play and Dungeons & Dragons. The shop recently launched an after school board game club for students 11 years and older who, for a monthly fee, can play any game in the store’s board game library.
Being housed in the same building as fLex Fitness and Red Newt has helped business, says Zander.
“We get walk-ins from people going to the other businesses,” says Zander. It works both ways—Zander and Paige, both of whom have a background in track and field, encourage their customers to check out a spin class or get out on a real bike.
“We’re really happy to have opened with a group that we know and like,” says Zander. “We all started businesses together at the same time. It’s been really fun to bounce ideas off and support each other.”
To cement their affiliation, the three new businesses have collaborated on a large Hub logo that hangs out front.
Game on, Lexington.
Make it Sew
“We had a few dozen people in here yesterday doing a charity sewing project, which was awesome. That’s why I’m doing this—to get people involved, make cool stuff, get sewing.”
“I’ve been having a lot of fun spending Launch Lex money,” says Accacia Mullen with a sly smile as she shows off bolts of stylish new fabric.
Her mother-in-law Cindy stands behind her at a worktable trying to come up with a system for organizing the hundreds of vintage buttons Accacia’s been collecting over the years. Two other friends ask Accacia where she wants to situate the four student sewing tables with machines. A fourth helper attaches “bolt buddies” to secure the new fabric in place.
Supporters have come out to help Accacia, arguably Rockbridge County’s most stylish bespoke dresser, move into larger digs.
Make it Sew sells unique, high quality fabric and notions. It offers sewing classes. It does alterations. The shop had been open for six months but, as Accacia explained to judges at Launch Lex, was already “bursting at the seams.”
She said she needed more space, more sewing machines and more inventory to keep up with demand. She needed to hire another seamstress to help with all the alterations. The judges agreed that her space was stifling her growth and awarded her $15,000 to, yes, make it so.
The winnings have allowed her to move out of her cramped 900 square foot shop with harsh lighting to a bigger, calmly lit 1,700 square foot space right next door. It features a lounge area with vintage seating around an actual fireplace.
“I have some fabric printed with wood grain design that I’m going to turn into fake logs,” she says. “I’m also going to create a ‘fire’ made of fabric.” (These are the sorts of things crafty people get to ponder.) Naturally, DIY stockings will hang over the mantel during the holidays.
Best of all, the new space features a separate workroom.
“It’s been kind of life changing,” says Accacia. “I can go back there with the door closed while a sewing class or some other activity goes on in the main room. It’s allowed me to really, truly have multiple things going on at the same time.”
The backroom is where the fabric flies. It houses a bunch of industrial sewing machinery, a break room and a changing area. It’s where she fits customers for alterations and takes on whatever sewing projects clients send her way—thousands of homemade dog collars? A line of ponchos modeled after the ones some guy picked up in Central America and now wants to sell in the States? Bring it.
(Though a caveat: Accacia underestimated the high demand for alteration/sewing projects in Rockbridge County and has been deluged with customer garments in need of repair. Not a bad problem to have but customers should expect to wait a minimum of two weeks before their finished item can be returned.)
Business has been so hectic that Accacia ended up hiring three employees, not the proposed one: two seamstresses and one part-time shop keep.
She also started a “Tuesday Basics” class that offers quick, “make-and-take” projects that are tailored for gift giving or making one’s own home feel a bit more artisanal (DIY cloth napkins, pillow cases, gift bags, etc.)
She then kicked off a Thursday afternoon middle school sewing club for 6th to 8th graders who have a budding Project Runway contestant inside them.
“I think I would have got here eventually,” Accacia says of the new space and expanded offerings. “But having the support from the state allowed me to get here a lot faster. Now I feel like this is a place where people want to be.”
She points to a pile of homemade cloth teddy bears on a chair near the cash register.
“We had a few dozen people in here yesterday doing a charity sewing project, which was awesome,” she says. “That’s why I’m doing this—to get people involved, make cool stuff, get sewing.”